‘Go make media:’ Comparing public access television and video blogging.
Darren James Harkness
July 27, 2006
This paper looks at the phenomenon of video blogging, or vlogging, and its relationship to public access broadcasting in the 1960s and 1970s. On the surface, the two are not that different. Both allow the public to make media, facilitate community building, and attempt to give the public power within the institution of broadcasting as corporate media. However, due to lack of funding, and a lack of community and public interest, public access broadcasting had limited success in meeting these goals. Moreover, public access television never entirely gave up the means of production to the content producers; television stations retained full control over their equipment and airtime. As a result, producers of public access content often felt alienated from the process, and seldom reached their ultimate goal of equality within the institution of broadcasting. Vlogging, however, gives greater access to the means of production, builds stronger communities, and is better situated to succeed in the goal of equality within the institution of broadcasting. Just about anyone with a video camera, inexpensive software, and a network connection can create, produce, and distribute their own programming. Whereas public access television, which rarely had live shows and could barely muster together enough community involvement for call-in shows when they were live, vlogging creates a sense of immediate community; in a matter of minutes or hours, a vlogger can post their material, receive comments from their viewers, follow threads of discussion amongst the viewers, and submit their own responses (either in text, or in a follow-up blog). If the community around public access television is static and nearly mute, the community around vlogs is active and interactive. Vlogging can succeed where public access has failed; now more than ever, media is in the hands of the public.
A brief history of public access television in North America
Public access television first emerged as a project of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). In 1966, the Challenge for Change program was developed to stimulate social change, and citizens were originally challenged to record the poverty around them. This program, according to King and Mele used “participatory (and later video production) to promote community activism among the poor” (608). According to Bill Olson, the public chose the films’ topics, and the films in turn often had a significant impact on the public (np). In 1971, the CRTC created regulations requiring cable companies to provide public access channels (Engleman 16 cited in Olson np).
In 1967, Lyndon Johnson mandated the creation of the Public Broadcasting Corporation in the United States through the Public Broadcasting Act as a way to give normal citizens access to the broadcasting infrastructure, so that they could produce and air their own local programming (Howley 120-1). This was seen as a way to ensure that local interests were being addressed by television (see Appendix A). The first to follow these new guidelines was Cable TV, Incorporated, who set up a public access channel in Dale City, Virginia in 1968. Olson and Gilbert Gillespie argue that the experiment failed due to “poor financing , low quality equipment, and lack of a permanent studio” in 1970 (Olson np, Gillespie 35-36, 59). However, other cable companies started public access channels in 1968 and initially saw better success; New York became a kind of hub of public broadcasting. Kevin Howley writes that in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, it was “the site of intense, often contentious efforts to ensure local participation in cable television production and distribution” organized by “an assortment of activists, artists, radicals, and self-described media ecologists” (121). Video collectives were created to provide programming for local interests, but found themselves fighting each other for financing. At the same time, in 1971, the Alternative Media Center was developed at the New York University by George Stoney and Ron Burns, a Canadian documentary filmmaker. The AMC took the example given to them by the NFB’s Challenge for Change program and gave the New York public the ability to create their own programs (Howley 121-123).
In order to produce a show for public access television, a series of steps had to be undertaken. First, the prospective producer had to have a (not necessarily good) idea. Second, the broadcaster had to visit his or her local television station and undergo training on the studio’s equipment. Usually, there was a small fee associated with this, and time required on the part of the producer. Next, the producer had to find someone to go in front of the camera, another to operate it, and yet another person to operate the editing equipment after the show was produced. Once the show was produced, the producer would have to arrange a time slot on the local public access channel and wait for it to be aired. In the hands of amateurs it could easily take weeks or months for a single show to go from concept to airing.
As such, the promise of an egalitarian broadcasting world fell far short of its lofty goals, at least in the American markets. Howley argues that “in many respects, the notion that the public would somehow get involved in television production, let alone manage the new operation, was rather specious to begin with” (121). And it was specious to hold that notion. In the end, due to a lack of funding, lack of variety in public access programming, and a focus on fringe issues, the general public quickly lost interest in public access television.
A (very) brief history of vlogging
Vlogging is a relatively new medium on the World Wide Web. Vloggers take short video of various subjects (autobiography, short documentaries, and entertainment-focused skits), and post them to the web, following the “newest first” and comment-based format established by the weblog, as vloggers adapted blogging software such as Blogger and Movable Type to post and archive their programs. The format of vlog posts also tends to follow blogging contentions, displaying short content on a frequent basis.
The first documented video blog is that of Adrian Miles. On November 27, 2000, Miles posted his first “vog,” a still shot of buildings with text appearing on top of them. Some further experimentation from other members of the Internet occurred throughout 2000-2002, but, at least according to Steve Garfield, 2004 was the year of the video blog, when the equipment required (a camera that could record digital video and connect to a computer) both reduced in cost and improved in quality. 2004 also featured the creation of the Yahoo Video Videoblogging group by Peter van Dijck and Jay Dedman, which has since been a center of vlog activity. Since 2004, the number of video blogs has increased substantially. Diane Aubale Epstein cites a Mefeedia report, stating that “in less than two years, the number of video blogs (vlogs or video podcasts) has grown from just a handful to over 7000” (np).
One of these things is not like the others: Why vlogging might succeed where public access failed
Public access television and video blogging share a central philosophy of providing equality within the broadcasting institution, ideally giving any interested citizen the ability to create and broadcast a show that reflects their interests. Both reduce barriers to the tools required to broadcast their programming. The quality of programming among both public access television and vlogs is also similar. Public access television tended to focus on programming that was inexpensive to produce such as interview-format talk shows. Many vlogs also follow this path; Rocketboom, one of the most popular vlogs, often features field correspondents who interview artists, authors, and filmmakers.
Vlogging significantly lowers the barriers of entry into the broadcasting institution. Although vlogging has not solved all the problems around means of production (the connections between a vlogger’s website and the network connections of their audience remain in control of the telecom companies and internet service providers, a fact which has been recently reinforced by larger network providers ), they have, for the most part, become easily available to the average citizen. Vloggers no longer need to book time at the local studio to shoot their programs or take extensive training on the equipment, nor do they need to fit into a set schedule to air them. Vloggers simply need to shoot and edit their programs and place them on a website.
The show ‘airs’ on demand. The expense involved for vlogging is also significantly less than the cost of airing a show on public access television. The show itself can be produced on limited budgets, and at any time of day (removing the need to take time away from work in order to work within a studio’s hours of availability). Those interested in vlogging can obtain the equipment (a camera that can be connected to a computer, such as a webcam or a digital video camera) and software (such as Apple’s iMovie, which is factory-installed on new Apple computers) necessary to produce their programs at a significantly lower cost than those interested in entering television. Two current video blogs exist on extremely meager budgets. Rocketboom, formerly hosted by Amanda Congdon, and now hosted by Joanne Colan, produces its 5-minute show on $20US per day. The Show with Ze Frank doesn’t make any mention of show costs, but he writes and produces all his own material on entry-level equipment and uses low-cost tools to put his video blog together (he claims in his July 28th show to be “going pro” because he has added a light bulb below his screen). Concerning the increased accessibility of vlog production Enric of Lucid Media writes:
from freevlog tutorials on how to shoot, edit, upload and present videoblogs on your own to numerous and continued questions on how to encode, techniques of shooting, hosting sites, etc. on the videoblogging yahoo group, the apparent feature of usage is personal control in creating media without requiring approval from a gatekeeper. For distribution, when a service like Veoh violates individual control of distribution—contradicting the creative commons licenses of vlogs—videobloggers will not stand for it. (“Defining Videoblogging”)
The access to the means of production is a surprisingly strong motivator for many video bloggers. They feel as though vlogging has opened up a medium that was previously closed to them technologically and culturally.
Where Enric talks about the opening up of technological barriers to producing media, Michael Verdi argues that we have a social right to create media. In a video blog entry about video blog entries, he reasons that vlogging:
breaks down the barriers to access to media . . . to be on television, to be in the movie theatre . . . to publish a book
. . . there was a barrier to entry . . . but no more . . . so, Hollywood – fuck them! They can’t say anymore, ‘you can, you can’t.’ We get to say, how bout all of us can do it. Why not? Why does it have to be just this person and not that person? Why not all of us? (Verdi)
Verdi argues that it’s too early to try and define what video blogs are; he advocates experimentation and play in order to help discover what potentials the medium has before defining it into stagnation.
The speculation around the future of vlogging parallels the speculation in the early days of public access. In 1978, discussing the emergence of television and the promise it held, Barnouw wrote
It should be remembered that every step in modern media history – telephone, phonograph, motion picture, radio, television, satellite – stirred similar euphoric predictions. All were expected to usher in an age of enlightenment. All were seen as fulfilling the promise of democracy. Possible benefits were always easier to envisage that misuses and corruptions, and still are. (176)
It is vital to take Barnouw’s words to heart when reading vlogging as a new medium of democracy and egalitarianism. Certainly, those sentiments are present among vloggers; there is an ever-present feeling that the medium as the great equalizer, bringing ordinary citizens to near celebrity status. Both researchers and vloggers must be aware that the medium is in its infancy. As part of this, many vloggers have written manifestos for the future of the medium. Of this tendency, Michael Verdi, says:
What is the rush to define it now? I mean… it would be like trying to pick a career and a mate for a newborn. Right? It’s absurd, we’re at just the very very beginning. As soon as we sit down and decide, you know, what it is, we automatically kill off all other possibilities. We don’t know where this is going to go.
By refusing to define vlogging, vloggers protect themselves from failing to meet the “euphoric predictions” Barnouw warns earlier mediums have inspired (176).
There are aspects of vlogging that we as researchers should examine closely, however, that distance it from Barnouw’s rather stern warning. With all the media Barnouw mentions (telephone, radio, television), the means of production were never truly given to the average citizen. Though people were free to use equipment supplied to them (the telephone network, radios, televisions and studio cameras) it was always clear who ultimately held control over them. The phone company could cut your line off at any time; the television studio running the public access station could schedule your show into oblivion; recording executives could incorporate digital rights management software to control how you used their products. Eric Rice says that we have the means of production in our own hands:
It’s people, in their own voices, with their own hands, making media. You want to make art? Go nuts. If you want to report news? Cool. Do you want to just capture a moment in time and share that with complete strangers or your friends or your family? That’s cool too. That’s anarchy.
The public has answered Rice’s call. They are creating media in the form of vlogs, blogs, and podcasts. So far, the majority of the media is without a greater agenda, and has stayed fairly clean of corporate influence. Independence and anarchy currently walk unobstructed in user-created media.
However, despite the fist-thumping manifestos of anarchy and equality which proliferate amongst the vloggers, vloggers, and the researchers studying them, must acknowledge that there is still a (albeit slim) digital divide in North America. The public can only participate in the vlog if it has access to a computer and an Internet connection. This has recently become less of a concern in North American in recent years, however. According to Public Works Canada, citing several studies from Ipsos Reid and Statistics Canada, “75% of Canadians overall have Internet access” as of 2002, and “an estimated 7.9 million (64%) of the 12.3 million Canadian households had at least one member who used the Internet regularly in 2003” (np). Of the 54% of Canadian households which had Internet access in the home (45% of which were in the $24,001 to $43,999 income range), 65% (4.4 million) had a high speed connection (np). As for the United States, a 2005 Neilsen Net Ratings study cited by Internet World Stats states that 68% of the population had Internet Access. The digital divide in North America was an issue in mid nineteen-nineties; in 2006 the divide is significant reduced.
The League of Awesomeness: Community in vlogs
The way community interacts with the programming sets vlogging apart from its public access progenitor; it engenders more active participation. The community around public access television is a passive one; they watch the program after its production, and discuss it – if it at all – within small groups. Although community members may phone into or send letters to the show but, for the most part, community interaction is a one-way process. Certainly, community members very rarely interacted with each other. This is, of course, markedly different from the vision of public access television, according to Howley, “programs . . . give voice to community members who are misrepresented, marginalized, and otherwise ignored by the mainstream media” (131). Howley concludes that public access failed in creating an active community, at least in the form it took in Manhattan during the 1960s and 1970s:
Creating a participatory medium that was relevant to a broad cross-section of Manhattan’s diverse population was a far more daunting task [than procuring the stations]…. Manhattan cable access developed a culture that reflected the interests of a relatively small minority of Manhattan residents; the voices, opinions and perspectives most often unseen and unheard in mainstream television were once again marginalized, this time by a nominally community-oriented medium. (133)
Even though they were successful by public access standards, the Manhattan Neighbourhood Network still has issues around serving the community, according to Howley (120).
So what has vlogging done to resolve the issues experienced in Manhattan for nearly 30 years? First, vlogging does not suffer the same problems with penetration rates that Manhattan did in the early 1970s. Instead of being relegated to a small section of local public access producers, audiences of vlogs have the world open to them. If you are bored by one vlog, there are 7,621 other vlogs to choose from. Vlog directories such as Ourmedia.com, Mefeedia, Vlogdir.com and others have emerged to catalogue vloggers according to interest, regional location, and popularity. It is simple to find and join a community of peers around any particular vlogger.
Community is a much more interactive and communal process in vlogging than in public access programming. Through the use of comments and forums, members of a vlog’s community gather to comment on and discuss the show (and other things) with each other. Additionally, they create a dialogue with the vlogger, offering almost immediate critique of the program’s content and suggestions for future programs; in some more extreme cases, such as The Show with Ze Frank’s experiment, “Fabuloso Friday,” they can even write the entire content:
Ze: Hi, new viewer. Welcome to Fabuloso Friday, the show where you think so I don’t have to.
Ze: That means you can make me say ‘I’m a huge douchebag’ for 5 straight minutes!”
Ze: [Enthusiastic!!] Awesome!
Ze: I am a huge douchebag.
Ze: I AM a huge douchebag.
Ze: I am a HUGE douchebag.
Ze: I am a huge DOUCHEbag.
Ze: I am a huge doucheBAG.
Ze: [German accent] I am a huge douchebag.
Ze: [English accent] I am a huge douchebag.
Ze: [whispering, petulant] Fabuloso Friday sucks already!
(“Fabuloso Friday/The Script” np)
The Fabuloso Friday experiment illustrates just how stark the difference is in the community between public access television and vlogging. The public access promise was to give every citizen the ability to create television programming; a promise that was ultimately never fulfilled. Ze Frank challenged his audience to communally develop a 3 minute script, and set up a wiki, which allowed any community member to contribute to, edit, or remove pieces of the script in progress. The quality of the resulting script is debatable (it could in fact be compared to some of the less stellar public access programs); one contributor, Dubber, sums up the process and result best, when s/he writes:
Well done everyone who contributed. That was a remarkable achievement for the power of the social web – and final clinching evidence that comedy should not be written by committee. Ze, that looked like it was almost exactly no fun at all. Your mouth was saying the words, but your eyes were saying ‘make it stop…’ Remarkable effort, superb concept, well performed and executed by all concerned – but it just didn’t work right. Please don’t let us do it again.
The final product may not have been to everyone’s tastes, but in a way the final product is not important. By giving command of his show to his audience, Ze Frank finally delivered on the promise public access long ago abandoned – he gave his community equality within the broadcasting medium.
Geek anarchy: concluding thoughts
According to Thomas Streeter, “cable . . . had the potential to rehumanize a dehumanized society, to eliminate the existing bureaucratic restrictions of government regulation common to the industrial world, and to empower the currently powerless public” (quoted in Higgins 626). However, Higgins goes on to assert that “another critique, originating from within the pluralist network, says that public access’s emphasis on the individual expression privileges the quantity of ideas in any context rather than the quality of ideas raised while discussing public issues, both political and cultural” (629-30). Vlogging does not deflect this criticism; certainly, most vlogs are very focused on individual expression. But an interesting thing happens – communities build around that individual expression and create their own pluralist networks, creating a quantity of ideas around any given issue. An example of this can be found in The Show with Ze Frank’s archives from July 25, 2006. In this episode, Ze discusses Condoleeza Rice’s visit to the Middle East to defuse the Israel/Lebanon conflict. This spawned a discussion amongst his users about Middle East politics, with discussions of how terrorism should be defined, suggestions for how Rice should handle the conflict, and opinions on whether the community had a collective desire to get to know Ze “biblically.” This discussion illustrates the quantity and quality of ideas created by vlogging and its community; the anarchic converses with the democratic.
What is cool about vlogging is the same thing that is cool about writing about vlogging – it is evolving as fast as I am writing about it. Since I have begun this paper, ZeFrank has posted over 30 shows, Rocketboom has gone through an internal civil war, and I have myself proclaimed the CBC as the genesis of the videoblog (and had to eat that assertion). Vlogging resists definitions even as vloggers themselves battle over them and the right vlogging at all. Unlike the early and failed vision of public access TV, in the vlogosphere the factories have been taken over by the workers; the means of production are in their hands and they are using it to make media, art, or anything else they want to make. This is not a point lost on the vloggers themselves:
“You know, the cool thing about video blogging, you can be as punk rock as we want it to be. Right? I’m here in my house, with my computer and my white board and whatever, and I’m making stuff up. And I’m putting it on the Internet. And you can’t do shit about that.” (Verdi)
The opening statements of the Act read:
(1) it is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public radio and television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes;
(2) it is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of nonbroadcast telecommunications technologies for the delivery of public telecommunications services;
(3) expansion and development of public telecommunications and of diversity of its programming depend on freedom, imagination, and initiative on both local and national levels;
(4) the encouragement and support of public telecommunications, while matters of importance for private and local development, are also of appropriate and important concern to the Federal Government;
(5) it furthers the general welfare to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the Nation;
(6) it is in the public interest to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities;
(7) it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist, and support a national policy that will most effectively make public telecommunications services available to all citizens of the United States;
(8) public television and radio stations and public telecommunications services constitute valuable local community resources for utilizing electronic media to address national concerns and solve local problems through community programs and outreach programs;
(9) it is in the public interest for the Federal Government to ensure that all citizens of the United States have access to public telecommunications services through all appropriate available telecommunications distribution technologies; and
(10) a private corporation should be created to facilitate the development of public telecommunications and to afford maximum protection from extraneous interference and control.
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